Screwworm infestation spreading in the Florida Keys, agricultural emergency declared

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture

FLORIDA KEYS — An infestation of flesh-eating screwworms is spreading in the Florida Keys and officials continued to work to contain the pest, which can affect wildlife, livestock, pets and humans.

The screwworm is the larvae of the screw fly and is the only insect known to eat the living flesh of warm blooded animals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

The maggots enter the body of an animal through an open wound and feed on the flesh for about a week before dropping off, burrowing into the ground and emerging as adult flies.

The infestation is the first instance of screwworms being found in the U.S. in more than 30 years and was first found in Big Pine and No Name keys.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, screwworms have spread to Big Torch, Middle Torch, Little Torch, Cudjoe, Ramrod and Summerland keys.

“(The screwworm) has caused immeasurable suffering and losses in livestock, wildlife and even human populations all over the world,” the USDA said in a release.

Though rare, cases of screwworm infestation in humans have been recorded.

It has already had a serious impact on critically endangered Key Deer, the FDA said.

At least 50 have been euthanized since the start of the infestation because they were “in such deteriorated condition.”

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam declared an agricultural state of emergency on Oct. 3.

Eradication efforts state officials have initiated include:

  • An Animal Health Check Point at Mile Marker 106 in Key Largo. This animal health checkpoint is a crucial part of ensuring animal health and protecting Florida from the spread of this pest. All animals are briefly checked to ensure they do not have screwworm. Early detection of screwworms can be successfully treated in pets and livestock. As of Tuesday, 883 animals had been checked and none were found to have screwworms.
  • The release of sterile flies, a scientifically proven method to achieve screwworm eradication, began on Tuesday, Oct. 11. The USDA continues to increase production and evaluate additional sites for release.
  • Enhanced surveillance to determine the scope of the screwworm infestation.
  • Extensive public outreach in order to engage the public in early detection of the screwworm.

Residents who have warm-blooded animals should watch their animals carefully and seek veterinary care for open wounds, then report any potential screwworm cases to 800-HELP-FLA, or 850 410-3800 for non-residents.